Finding Fulfillment in Biology

Sometimes, Jesuits are even ahead of the scientific community.

Two years ago on Sept. 16, Fr. Kevin O’Brien, S.J., wrote a piece for The Hoya called “Using the Three D’s to Guide a Modern Life.” In it, he describes depth, distraction and discernment: three things necessary to understanding’s life’s meaning. O’Brien calls on students to strive to live deeply without distraction and to allow room for discernment for those that do. In other words, he calls on us to live with meaning for the greater glory of God.

When I first read his words, they made intuitive sense; of course we should try to live fully and for others. It appeals to our morals. And while intuition may be enough for some of us, it is certainly gratifying when biology backs us up.

Professors at the University of North Carolina and the University of California, Los Angeles recently examined the white blood cells of 80 healthy volunteers and had the same volunteers fill out an online survey about their happiness.

These researchers decided to compare different types of happiness to gene expression. They found that depending on the type of happiness each person reported, they expressed different genetic traits. Those whose happiness was predominately based on buying new things — what we might call hedonic happiness — had more biological markers in their white blood cell DNA known to lead to more inflammatory immune responses.

On the other hand, those who reported finding happiness by serving others had lower levels of these inflammatory genetic markers. In a nutshell, this study indicates that the more we strive for a deeper, activity-based happiness, the healthier our gene expression gets.

Of course the issue of correlation versus causation blurs our conclusions. The National Academy of Science officially summarized the study by saying that those who live to serve others are significantly less stressed. And, given the negative side effects of living constantly under stress, I’d translate that to the surprising truth that living deeply for others actually makes us healthier.

Granted, it’s hard to pin down the exact relationship here, and perhaps there’s no relationship and we just found a fluke trend. And of course, there are those who will derive happiness from both buying the new iPhone and volunteering at D.C. Reads. Biology can be a fickle thing.

But there’s a part of me — my unscientific gut reaction — that believes that maybe there’s a difference in our physical bodies when we feel directed toward a higher purpose.

Think about it: If we’re not always consumed with the material costs of living, it’s easier to dismiss temporal misfortunes. As much as the little things in life add up — the money we have, the number of Facebook posts on our walls or the grades we get — our relationships ultimately matter more.

At the end of the day, it’s easier for me to forgive myself for a poorly written philosophy paper when I remember that my work to foster meaningful relationships has been more successful. When I get into a fight with those who matter most to me, however, it’s much harder to excuse myself. A paper is has a temporary impact; these other things are more permanent.

It seems to me that whether or not we identify with religion, we can all benefit from taking O’Brien’s words to heart. If we live striving to do the work that matters — the kind that benefits others, forms lasting connections and is unmotivated by monetary distractions — our immune systems will respond favorably. As far as the current scientific literature shows, there’s no downside to trying.

Originally published on The Hoya.

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